MILWAUKEE — It’s not every day you get a chance to attend one of the American Serb Hall’s famous fish fries. Not even if you live in Milwaukee; after all, they only hold them on Fridays.
So when the opportunity came, I jumped. And not just to go as an ink-stained wretch huddled with the hungry, fry-fish-famished press corps in the back of the room, but as a paying guest, there to sit at a convivial table and chow down on a Milwaukee marvel.
Thus it was that I found myself breaking bread with a group of Wisconsin Republicans. They were, I’m sad to report, a glass-more-than-half-empty crowd. A glass of hemlock, that is. Like sailors in the pre-Columbus era, they fear America is one bad election away from tumbling off the edge of the earth.
It can be hard to understand those worries if you don’t dwell on the right. But think of it this way: Where you might see 14 million new private-sector jobs since the Great Recession bottomed out, and a stock market that has more than doubled during the Obama years, they see an economy as dreary as a clam flat closed for red tide. And with a whale carcass rotting away at the waterline. What can one say, really, other than that they are a lugubrious lot?
The fellow next to me was one of those conservatives absolutely convinced that everybody else would immediately convert to conservatism if only they knew the true facts. He took me under his right wing.
“You realize Obama is trying to take over every police department in America?” he said.
At the risk of seeming like a know-it-all Easterner, I said I didn’t really think that was true.
Yes, it is.
Hmmm. Where did you see it reported?
That’s your problem! You think something’s only happening if it’s been reported on.
But how do you know, absent some credible account?
You just have to watch and see and put it all together.
So is Obama trying to take over the Milwaukee police department? My new friend looked annoyed at the question. But before he could reply, a Republican eminence took to the podium: Sarah Palin, there to speak on behalf of Donald Trump.
I wish I could give you a precise account of what Sarah had to say, but sadly, I’m not fluent in Palinese, and she doesn’t speak English. Like many Palinesque rhetorical sorties, this was a seat-of-the pants flight over the uncharted regions of human comprehension.
Let me try to pastiche: Getting off the airplane, and seeing all the green and gold, oh those Packers, and competition is sooo good and elevates the best, which Wisconsin deserves, but the Washington class is palling around with the same old insiders, and the three core issues are that the GOP insiders see the GOP as an ATM for their own wallets, and they’re just A-OK with cheating on trade deals and porous borders, and think it’s just kind of awesome, because they’ve already got theirs from the special interests, and Mr. Trump is the only one who gets it, because he knows the “art of the dill,” and we won’t retreat, we’ll reload.
Listening, I found myself thinking, once again: Oh my word, she could have been one septuagenarian heartbeat away from the presidency. The two women across from me, devoted Scott Walker activists both, put their hands over their mouths in a polite Midwestern attempt to hide giggles. The occupants of the table behind ours, who had been oiling their tonsils and dulling their inhibitions with drink, weren’t so successful. Several burst into guffaws.
That didn’t please Sarah.
“It’s not something to laugh at, friends,” she declared, though whether she was referencing their mirth or making an, um, larger point, I can’t say with certainty. Not without consulting a team of linguists first.
We munched on fish. My friend prosecuted several grievances he had with President Obama.
Why won’t he say “radical Islamic terrorism?’’
This matter is hugely important to conservative Republicans, though I’ve never understood precisely why. And as far as I can tell, it’s not as though “radical Islamic terrorism” is a magical incantation, the utterance of which will suddenly end, well, radical Islamic terrorism.
I did my best, however, saying that Obama was probably hoping not to define the conflict as the West versus Islam, and thus alienate millions of people who could be our allies, but rather rally civilized people of all religions against murderous fanatics.
Suddenly, there came a breathy “God bless the great state of Wisconsin.” Ted Cruz was speaking!
Ted Cruz’s mission was to impress on Wisconsin Republicans the need to rally around Ted Cruz. Nominating Donald Trump would lead to an electoral train wreck, he said. (Ted, by contrast, is a 20-car-and-tractor-trailer pile-up on the interstate.) No, actually, that isn’t fair to train wrecks, heh heh heh heh.
You know that ISIS has terrorist cells in all 50 states, all because of Obama, the FBI says so.
Well, not exactly, but you can’t turn away from an orator like Ted Cruz to debate a point like that with a tablemate.
If Hillary wins, it’s the end of the Bill of Rights. She’ll give sovereignty away to the World Court and the United Nations and the international law.
Kooky, you say? Yes indeed, but that wasn’t my neighbor, it was Cruz, into whose arms Republicans are being told they must leap to save themselves from Trump.
Actually, maybe it’s not that hard to understand why Republicans are so gloomy.
Cruz concluded. My new friend and I shook hands. He gave me a pamphlet warning that I was a sinner, that the wages of sin are death, and that I needed to follow the instructions printed thereon pronto to save myself.
And yet, from the look in his eyes, I could tell he had given up on me. He had done his best, to no avail.
And now he had other fish to fry.Scot Lehigh can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.